Chasing Cha Ca

March 8, 2011

Sheraton Rooftop Bar and a Cocktail, or two…

Our first evening in Ho Chi Minh City started off with a little evening stroll, where we watched the city come to life…

This place was brimming with locals and tourists alike, all lining up for woodfired pizza. It smelt and looked amazing! Ho Chi Minh City, we were impressed.

Later on, I stumbled across this street snack – I have a real knack for finding food wherever I go ๐Ÿ˜‰ It was a custard-type dessert, and was quite nice, but nothing I will pine after or rush to re-create. Oh, and it cost around 25cents. Can anyone translate this sign for me? It was next to the lady who sold us the sweet, and I snapped a picture of it hoping to be able to translate it once I was home. Taking a punt, I see the word “Flan”, and it did indeed taste Flan-ish…?

We then found ourselves at the Sheraton Rooftop Bar, as was recommended by a friend. Cocktails ensued. Martinis and a Cosmopolitan. It was two for one… hey, When in Ho Chi Minh City! Perching high up on the 23rd floor, cocktail in hand, is a fabulous way to see the city, which appeared to be quite Cosmopolitan from this viewing point and time of night – see? The second cocktail was purely a topical refreshment.

But enough about the drinks, let’s talk food!

* I would like to disclose right here, right now, that I wholeheartedly believe my love for the following dish to be in no way enhanced by the somewhat enthusiastic number of beverages consumed on this beautiful night, the first night of our Asia trip.

Cha Ca

When researching what food we should try while in Vietnam, there were a few dishes I came across again and again. One of them was Cha Ca. Countless travellers posted online their praise for this dish – some in particular were really quite firm and insistent about it. Ok, duly noted ๐Ÿ˜‰ But what is it and where can I get some?…

โ€œChaโ€ means grilled (or possibly fried), and โ€œCaโ€ means fish. This dish is all that and more – much more.

Cha Ca originated in Hanoi โ€“ in fact, there is a street named after the dish! Many streets in Hanoi are named after a food or something that is produced on that street. Cha Ca La Vong , a restaurant in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, originally started serving Cha Ca to enraptured patrons over a century ago (wow!). They now have a branch in Ho Chi Minh City, which serves up the famous fish dish. Many report that this chapter is even better than the original, which apparently often disappoints. I cannot compare the two personally, but we were certainly thrilled with our Cha Ca experience. So much so that after our meal I almost started dancing down the street to โ€œIโ€™m every womanโ€…No? Too much? Is it really just me who breaks into a Chaka Khan song whenever I hear or see the words โ€œCha Caโ€. Apparently so, I apologise.

And so after taking in the view of the city from 23 stories high, and enjoying some cheeky cocktails, we caught a cab to Cha Ca La Vong, 3 Ho Xuan Huong Street, District 3 for our highly anticipated dinner. Dear friends, it did not disappoint.

There is only one dish on the menu, so as soon as we sat down a small burner was brought to our table – our meal was cooked right in front of us! Every now and then a waitress would come over and give a courtesy stir, to which we would sing our praises with “oooohs” and “ahhhhhs”.

There was also some prawn cracker-style bread as an accompaniment, which I was not particularly fussed with.

Once cooked, we topped our bowl of fresh rice noodles with the fish and herbs, before scattering with fresh chilli and peanuts, a dash of fish sauce and a squeeze of lime.

Oh my…

How do I describe the beauty of this dish? It was…exciting! The use of dill in Vietnamese cooking really surprised us. I have so much to learn about this fascinating cuisine! There were other fresh herbs in this dish too โ€“ coriander and basil. Iโ€™ve said it before and Iโ€™ll say it again, I absolutely love how the Vietnamese use herbs as noteworthy ingredients. Adding more than a simple sprinkle really allows the dish to sing in a way that is so foreign to other styles of cooking. The food tastes heightened, elevated to a whole new, special place.

The flavour of the tumeric, in all itโ€™s feisty yellow glory, with the meaty snakehead fish was just gorgeous. I am not all that familiar with this fish, and I really enjoyed the flavour. Together with the crunch of the fresh spring onion and the fragrant herbs, with a sour touch of lime and the soft rice noodles, it was an incredibly stimulating and downright delicious meal.

I must admit, however, that one sniff of the mam tom (fermented shrimp sauce) was enough, and I steadily pushed this stinky, stinky goo far from view. I appreciate that this is an acquired taste. I simply do not wish to acquire it.

We loved this dish. It was a real standout during out visit to Vietnam. The combination of flavours were just insane. Cha Ca is something we will definitely try to recreate at home. I would absolutely recommend this restaurant to hungry travellers in Ho Chi Minh City as a delightful place to try this very popular dish.

And now, if youโ€™ll excuse me, I must go do a little Chaka Khan danceโ€ฆโ€Ainโ€™t nobody, loves me betterโ€ฆโ€

Heidi xo

p.s. thanks to Ben for naming this post. He thinks it’s an ingenious title. I wasn’t so sure, yet every time I suggested a new name he shut it down, “Chasing Cha Ca!!” Ok, ok.

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  • hollypop March 8, 2011 at 9:22 am

    the view!
    the drinks!
    the food!
    likewise – i can't get into shrimpy and don't wanna. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Laura Preston March 8, 2011 at 9:59 am

    wow, I wish I had found this place on my travels!

    what sort of camera do you use Heidi?

  • Lisa (bakebikeblog) March 8, 2011 at 10:29 am

    I have never heard of this dish but it looks positively delightful!

  • Heidi March 8, 2011 at 10:40 am

    Hollypop – I am sure we're not alone! I can't handle it.

    Laura – I use a Nikon SLR D5000 – it is my baby and I love it ๐Ÿ™‚

    Lisa – oh it is! Positively scrumptious.

    Heidi xo

  • Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella March 8, 2011 at 11:38 am

    This dish is new to me too! But now I will think of Chaka Khan every time I hear of it ๐Ÿ˜›

  • Sarah March 8, 2011 at 1:16 pm

    Hi Heidi

    I'm a longtime reader but first time poster. I love your photos. I just returned from two weeks in Saigon and Nha Trang and am reliving it through your posts!

    The sign translates to "100% fresh milk. Agar agar jelly desserts. Yoghurt. Coffee. Creme caramel. Specialty: Vegetarian glutinous rice flour dumplings."

  • Michelle Chin March 8, 2011 at 1:17 pm

    The use of dill is probably due to the french influence. ๐Ÿ˜€ I think my mom had this before.

  • Hannah March 8, 2011 at 2:23 pm

    Cha ca looks and sounds amazing! I love strong flavour, so the idea of fermented shrimp paste, chilli, peanuts, and lime, sounds brilliant to my mind. Add to that the gorgeous view, even if it happened at a different time, and I'd be a hampy camper ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Heidi March 8, 2011 at 5:27 pm

    Lorraine – hehe, glad I won't be the only one – sorry about that ๐Ÿ˜›

    Sarah – Hi! Thank you so much for this translation! It must have been creme caramel. They all sound delicious though. I'm glad you are getting to re-live your recent travels here! I didn't get to Nha Trang but it sounds wonderful. Thanks again ๐Ÿ™‚

    Michelle – yes, the French influence makes for a very interesting cuisine, it's fantastic!

    Hannah – all this did make for two very happy campers ๐Ÿ™‚ although on this trip we could afford fabulous accommodation for such a good price – no camping required! Love that about Asia.

    Heidi xo

  • Merowyn March 8, 2011 at 8:06 pm

    Love, love, love these photos!!! The food looks amazing.

    The flan reminds me of Lechee Flan (I think that's how it's spelt) in the Philippines it's pretty much creme caramel… Is that kind of what it tasted like??

  • Lesdad March 8, 2011 at 8:33 pm

    Hi! Once again your style is loveable!

    I am ready for being chased by your Cha Ca; when will you cook it for us and PLEASE leave in the fermented shrimp paste. xx

  • The InTolerant Chef March 8, 2011 at 10:38 pm

    It does look fantastic! Being made by the table would be great, and shows you the secrets to it's creation too!

  • Kath (My Funny Little Life) March 8, 2011 at 10:48 pm

    Cha Ca would definitely be my dish! ๐Ÿ˜€

    You look so pretty in that black dress! And the view over the city is just amazing!

  • Ashley March 9, 2011 at 1:40 am

    Gosh, all your photos look so great! ๐Ÿ™‚ Gorgeous views from that Sheraton bar! Looks like Cha Ca is a fun cooking process! ๐Ÿ™‚

  • wholesomecook March 9, 2011 at 7:09 am

    It looks like you had such a lovely time away ๐Ÿ™‚ On the topic of food, I've always found the combination of fish and fresh herbs appealing and Mr Chipconnoisseur likes his fish fried – this might just become our favourite fish dish… What Aussie fish would you pick instead of snakehead?

  • Heidi March 9, 2011 at 8:35 am

    Meroywn – yes, it did taste like creme caramel! I am so interested in Filipino cuisine! I know so little about it.

    lesdad – yes we should cook it soon! & leave in the mam tom, really? I'm impressed! You can have it…

    InTolerant Chef – very true, I feel so good about re-creating now, as it was cooked right in front of us!

    Kath – thanks, lovely ๐Ÿ™‚ & yes, you would love this dish!

    Ashley – thank you! It was a lot of fun ๐Ÿ™‚

    Wholesomecook – oooh let's see…perhaps snapper? It was quite firm but didn't have a particularly strong flavour. I'm honestly not great with my fish, sorry! I'll let you know when I make it.

    Heidi xo

  • Adrian in Food Rehab March 9, 2011 at 1:32 pm

    Looks like you had a ball! Digggin the views for the bar- amazing. Yes, when travelling- eat, eat, drink, eat then repeat! ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Iron Chef Shellie March 9, 2011 at 10:01 pm

    Oh how I love a rooftop bar. The one I went to in Bangkok is my favorite so far!

  • Heidi March 10, 2011 at 10:58 am

    Adrian – it was amazing ๐Ÿ™‚ and yes eating is such a great way to soak up all the culture and goodness overseas!

    Michele – which rooftop bar is that? I would love to see Bangkok in this way!

    Heidi xo

  • Anna Johnston March 10, 2011 at 3:27 pm

    Now that is one glorious view from a rooftop bar Heidi & couldn't agree with you more on the wondrous flavours in Vietnamese cuisine. I do believe you've found a keeper in this one though., looks awesome….. would love to taste ๐Ÿ™‚

  • deb March 10, 2011 at 6:55 pm

    I love Cha Ca! And it is really easy to make too. I reckon sitting having cocktails and eating cha ca is a perfect evening!!